Big-spending German ‘bling bishop’ faces grilling from Pope Francis
A German big-spending Catholic bishop has flown to Rome to try and explain himself to humility advocate Pope Francis as he faces multiple calls to resign over his high-roller lifestyle.
Bishop of Limburg Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst flew in with low-cost airline Ryanair — following accusations he took a business-class ticket on a trip to India and squandered money on luxuries.
His private quarters in a brand-new bishop’s palace are reported to have cost some 2.9 million euros ($3.9 million) and included a 63-square-metre dining room and a 15,000 euro bathtub.
Germany’s top Catholic cleric Robert Zollitsch, who was also visiting Rome, said the scandal over Limburg should not remain “without consequences”.
The 53-year-old bishop is under pressure to resign after using church funds to build himself a diocese headquarters with a museum, conference halls, a chapel and private apartments.
The ostentatious project in the ancient town of Limburg was approved by his predecessor and was initially valued at 5.5 million euros but the final bill ballooned to 31 million euros.
The alleged extravagances of the cleric dubbed “bling bishop” by the press have sparked furore among Catholics in Germany, where Martin Luther’s Reformation legacy has left many sensitive to excesses within the Church.
Tebartz-van Elst is also accused of giving false statements in court in a case centred on an expensive flight he took to India to visit poor communities.
Prosecutors allege the bishop twice gave false statements under oath in a Hamburg court battle against news weekly Der Spiegel when he denied having told the magazine’s journalist that he flew only business class.
Anger that taxes paid to the Church by ordinary Germans are apparently being squandered has led to demonstrations outside his residence.
“For heaven?s sake!” the headline on the nation?s largest-selling tabloid, Bild, screamed on Friday. Over a graphic that showed the bishop?s living quarters and offices, it asked, “Why does the bishop need a 783,000-euro garden?”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, daughter of a Protestant pastor, said via her spokesman Steffen Seibert that “the government naturally has no instructions or advice to give. But I can express the hope that there will be an answer for believers, for people’s confidence in their Church.”
Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Treves, in West Germany, told Germany’s public television chain ARD that the situation has “escalated to the extent that bishop Franz-Peter can no longer on principle work in Limburg.”
The embattled Tebartz-van Elst has defended the costly project, saying the centuries-old hilltop cathedral complex adjacent to the modernist new structure is heritage protected, complicating the development.
Critics within and outside the church have contrasted the premium architectural project with the more humble style of Pope Francis and asked how much good the money could do if used as aid in poverty-stricken African countries.
Pope Francis has called for a “poor Church for the poor” and has condemned high-roller clerics.
The 76-year-old pontiff has refused to move into the lavish papal palace in the Vatican, staying instead in the Casa Santa Marta, a residence for visiting clergy and lay people.
He has repeatedly called for the Catholic Church and its faithful to rid themselves of earthly concerns like his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, warning that “worldliness is a murderer because it kills souls, kills people, kills the Church.”
Archbishop Zollitsch has set up a commission to investigate the finances of Limburg diocese.
“This weighs on us,” Zollitsch told reporters in Rome, adding that he could “not take a position” on the procedures in Germany against the bishop.
“It is the bishop of Limburg who should take a position,” Zollitsch said, adding that he should respond “with a spirit of self-criticism”.